Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough specialise in making a single ingredient sing. Partners in life and in food writing, the pair are well known in the US for their wildly successful series of "Ultimate" cookbooks, beginning with The Ultimate Ice Cream Book, which has sold more than a quarter of a million copies since it was first published 10 years ago. The approach has its disadvantages, however. "When we got done writing The Ultimate Shrimp Book," says Weinstein, "I couldn't eat shrimp for six months. We did The Ultimate Brownie Book, and I didn't know until then that the smell of melting chocolate could make a person nauseous."
Their latest book, Ham: An Obsession With the Hindquarter, also required them to spend a lot of time with a singular cut from a particular beast. But, says Weinstein, "We're going to be eating a smoked ham on Tuesday. I didn't know just how versatile it was before we started working on the book. I got fed up of shrimps and brownies, but even after writing an entire book I'm not tired of ham." That versatility is evident from the book, which contains more than 100 recipes filled with flavours from across the globe, from the $1,800 Iberico ham that graces its cover, to Weinstein's avant-garde sounding jerk ham and pineapple tamales.
"Most people think of ham as what they have in a ham and cheese sandwich," he says. "The wet-cured, honey-baked, spiral-cut ham that you get in the supermarket. There are so many other different types of ham around the world, besides wet-cured: the European dry-cured hams; or American country ham, which most people outside the American South have never tasted.
"Then there's fresh ham, which even some of our foodie friends didn't know about. We wanted to show all the different ways to cook ham with international flavours. So we've covered everything from roast fresh ham to stir-fries to curries."
Weinstein and Scarbrough travelled far and wide to research the book, but many of the recipes were cooked and written at their home in the Berkshires, in rural Connecticut.
Since moving there from Manhattan three years ago, the couple have raised one pig each year. The first, whom they named Wilbur, was the book's inspiration, after they tried to produce their prosciutto from one of his hams – with mildly disastrous results. Thankfully, Wilbur's second ham survived to feature in some of the book's first dishes. His eminent bloodline continues: the smoked ham they're eating on Tuesday is from Son of Wilbur, and next year they'll be dining on Grandson of Wilbur.
The two authors had very different upbringings, but food writing is a second career for both. Scarbrough grew up eating country ham in Texas before becoming a college English professor. Weinstein, initially an advertising creative, was born and raised in New York City. "I don't think I tasted ham until I was a teenager," he recalls. "I grew up in a Jewish house, but we weren't kosher. We ate bacon, we ate Chinese spare ribs, but we didn't eat ham. Ham is the most Christian of all meat products. If you eat it you might as well be going to church! A cousin served a smoked ham at a party once and my grandmother was very upset about it. But I was like: 'How have you people been hiding this from me?!'"
The early "Ultimate" books were cooked up in their four-by-16-foot Manhattan kitchen. "You couldn't stand in front of the stove and open the oven door at the same time," says Weinstein. "Mark always said that if Sylvia Plath had our apartment she'd still be alive."
Moving away from New York was a wrench for both men, but "We gained so much. I can see woods and snow from my window now. We have room for guests. And for pigs."
Weinstein and Scarbrough's life together is an integral part of Ham, with Scarbrough's amusing vignettes from their domestic double-act putting meat on the bones of the recipes. For the first time in their 11-year partnership (during which they've produced 18 books) they have divided their responsibilities neatly, with Scarbrough writing while Weinstein cooks.
"It's the first book that Mark has written not in the first person plural but in the first person singular, writing about me," Weinstein explains.
"We worked together on the recipe concepts, but Mark told me I could have as much freedom as I wanted in the kitchen, so I went a little crazy and some of the recipes are really extravagant! But it was also the first time he was able to fully explore his voice, that conversational sense of humour – and as long as I come off in a good light, that's fine with me. Of course, he gets to taste everything, give his feedback and kill recipes if he doesn't like them. And I get to read everything that's written and if I want to change things, then he listens to my input."
The subtitle, "An Obsession With the Hind- quarter", is there to emphasise the book's definition of ham: "One back haunch (the butt cheek, if you will) and upper leg down to the shank of a pig, boar, shoat, or other porcine-ish animal." They chose that title, Weinstein explains, "because we really wanted to clear up the fact that it's the arse of the animal. The front legs – sometimes called a picnic ham – are not a ham. They're smaller and more sinewy. The ham in the back has four large, basic muscles that make beautiful meat whether you stew it, or roast it, or break it down for stir-frying, braising or something else."
Thanks to their experience with Wilbur and Sons, the couple now feel a lot closer to their food. And while it's often easy to hide the fact that meat comes from an actual animal, another benefit of a whole ham is that it looks like what it is – the limb of a pig. "It's nice to know where your meat comes from," says Weinstein. "Both Mark and I were briefly vegetarians in our twenties. And now if I couldn't shake the hand of the farmer who raised my meat I'd be tempted to become one again. But moving to the country has given us the chance to eat a lot of wonderful, organic local food."
As they describe in Ham, Weinstein and Scarbrough have a share in a nearby community agricultural project, where they can harvest their own fresh vegetables year-round. It has been the inspiration for their next book, Real Food Has Curves, explains Weinstein, "a seven-step plan for getting off processed food".
Asked to recommend a particular dish from Ham, he leafs to page 169, and his recipe for cider-cured ham. "To cure your own fresh ham in cider is a phenomenal experience," he says. "You soak the ham in a brine of apple cider, beer, salt, brown sugar and spices, then braise the whole ham in cider. It's life-changing."
Perfect pork: Cooking with ham
Orecchiette with Sage, Roasted Garlic, Cauliflower and Prosciutto Crudo
Makes 4 main courses, or 6 first courses
1 garlic head, broken into its cloves without peeling them, the papery shell and inner core discarded
3 cups cauliflower florets, cut into bite-sized pieces
3 tablespoons olive oil
4oz thinly sliced prosciutto crudo, diced
1 tablespoon minced sage leaves
12oz orecchiette, cooked and drained
2 tablespoons dry white wine or dry vermouth, maybe a little more
2-3oz finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Preheat the oven to 425F. Place the unpeeled garlic cloves in a 9-by-13-inch baking pan and roast for 20 minutes. Toss the cauliflower florets with the olive oil, then pour them into the baking dish and toss well. Continue roasting, stirring occasionally, until the florets are lightly browned and the garlic cloves are soft (about 20 minutes more). Transfer the baking dish and its vegetables to a wire rack and cool for a few minutes. Squeeze the soft garlic pulp out of its papery hulls and back into the baking dish. Stir in the diced prosciutto and the minced sage. Set the pan back in the oven and continue roasting just until the prosciutto begins to sizzle (about 10 minutes).
Transfer the baking dish back to the wire rack and stir in the cooked pasta, wine, and cheese until the cheese melts. If you notice that the mixture is a little dry, you can add a splash or two more of the wine, just to make sure everything is moist but certainly not soupy. Serve the dish right out of the baking pan.
Orecchiette are little bits of pasta shaped like small ears ( orecche in Italian). You could substitute other pasta types, of course – farfalle (or bow ties) come straight to mind. The real stars of this dish are the garlic and cauliflower, roasted in a 9-by-13-inch baking pan until browned, caramelised, and utterly irresistible.
To get the florets off a cauliflower head, remove the stems and leaves. (These, by the way, are fully edible but quite tough, so they're best in soups and stews.) Slice the florets off the base just where they meet the stem. Trim off any brown discoloration or squishy bits. Once the florets have been separated from the head, cut these into smaller bits so this pasta dish isn't a fork-and-knife affair – more like something that needs a big spoon. We've also made this dish up until the prosciutto begins to sizzle (see above), then stirred everything into a large saucepan of softened couscous for a very hearty side dish to steaks or a roasted chicken.
Rocket Salad with Country Ham, Pears and Honey Vinaigrette
Makes enough for 2 for dinner, or up to 6 for a very light first course
1/4 cup walnut pieces
2/3lb baby garden rocket leaves (or about 4 cups)
6oz cooked country ham, rind removed and discarded, the meat thinly sliced and cut into strips
1 large, ripe Bartlett pear, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon apple-cider vinegar
1-1/2 teaspoons honey
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons toasted walnut oil
Sprinkle the walnuts around a dry skillet set over medium-low heat. Leave them alone for a couple of minutes, then stir well and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, just until splotchy brown and fragrant. Pour them out onto a cutting board, cool for a few minutes, then chop into little bits.
Mix the rocket, ham, and pear pieces in a large bowl. Whisk the lemon juice, vinegar, honey, and mustard in a small bowl, then whisk in the oil in a slow, steady stream until you've got a creamy, somewhat thick dressing. Pour the dressing over the rocket mixture, then sprinkle the toasted walnut pieces on top.
Rocket can get awfully stemmy, particularly late in the autumn. If you notice too many fibrous stems, cut them off – but make sure you use 4 cups of packed leaves, even with the stems gone. And remember this: the smaller the rocket leaf, the less astringent the taste. You can make the dressing up to 4 hours in advance. Store it, covered, at room temperature, and whisk it again before using.
Ham and Potatoes Sarladaise
Makes about 8 small appetiser servings
2 pounds russet potatoes
1/4 cup lard or olive oil
1lb not-smoked, wet-cured ham, such as prosciutto cotto, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/3 cup packed parsley leaves, chopped
4 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon coarse-grained salt, such as kosher salt or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Position the rack in the dead centre of the oven and preheat it to 400F. Peel the potatoes, then use a very sharp, thin knife to cut them into 1/4-inch-thick slices. It's easier to slice them the short way, thereby producing rounds, but they're more aesthetically pleasing sliced the long way for layering in the baking dish.
However, it's troublesome to get those long slices. Best alternative? Slice a little off one end, stand the potato up on your cutting board, and make the thin slices straight down. Heat the lard in a very large skillet over medium-high heat. Test it with one potato slice to make sure the oil bubbles when the potato is added. But be careful: all that starch-laden water in the potato will pop and sputter in the hot oil. (You might consider using a splatter screen, available at cookware shops and their online outlets.)
Add more slices in batches, and fry them until golden brown, turning occasionally, about 15 minutes per batch. As the potato slices are finished, transfer them to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Once all the potatoes have been fried and are in the pan, sprinkle them with the remaining ingredients and toss well. Bake, tossing two or three times, until everything is crisp and aromatic (about 20 minutes).
'Ham: An Obsession With the Hindquarter' is published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, £19.99